1953: the year when the Cuban Revolution began and as if the time in Cuba stood still, owing to the American embargo. The El bloqueo had Cuba preserved as an open-air museum of communism without the American influence – the country has no American chain stores, no American fast food, no Coca Cola (that sold officially), no Starbucks, and even not much outdoor commercial advertising… the country, to a lot of travelers, is unique and fascinating.
I wonder if the recent loosening of America’s embargo would change the uniqueness and mysteriousness of the country. Until now, however, there’s still no direct commercial flight from anywhere of the States to Cuba. In December 2014, I left L.A. and headed to Havana through Cancun, the most convenient stopover from the West coast. Other possible hubs would be Toronto or the Mexican City. For years, “Havana” equals to “Central American” to me, and it’s a paradise for those who love a tropical, retro-vibe.
The flight to Havana was a bit old and dusty but fortunately, it was only an hour from Cancun, Mexico. A lady sitting next to me in the first row was obviously familiar with the crew on board. She was talking loudly to the crew in fluent Spanish and no one intended to stop her when she was playing with her smartphone during taxi or takeoff.
Once took off and the flight was steady, I was finally aware of the fact that I am entering a different world. There were two kinds of juices on the flight the box says “product de Cuba”. I was looking at the juice box and I believed I was not the only one doing so. I chose the pear juice which was a bit thick and too sweet….
Anyway, once I landed and I got out from the custom, it was horrendous… The airport hall was packed with people and queues everywhere. It took me more than almost 2 hours to go through luggage claim and got my Cuban Pesos; and oh yes, my mobile roaming coverage covers Cuba but welcome to the world of no 3G roaming J~ at 9 pm, I was exhausted, starved and pretty much gross, I pushed my belongings to the taxi stand and mid-way, an old man stopped me and asked “Taxi?”… Before I could compose myself and bargain, he grabbed my trolley and pushed my luggage towards the darkness. I followed suit and just when I was about to wonder “is it safe?”, I gasped in amazement as the taxi driver stopped in the deserted car park with his vintage cab. I admired the car for a second (for something that I have never seen), and didn’t even know how to open the car door.
One of the living fossils walking on the road… well, I could never drive a stick, my tour guide friend arranged this vintage car to take me around the Miramar district…
When Fidel Castro assumed power in Cuba after the revolutions in 1959, American cars and parts were prevented from importing to the country. As a result, for the last almost 60 years, Cubans have played the role of Doctor Frankenstein, tinkling and repairing their old Fords, Chryslers or Chevrolets, passed it down generations to generates to keep their American cars alive. Some drivers even painted and put a sticker of “1953”, “56”, “59” on their vintage cars! (And yes, you could find some modern cars on the road, even buses imported from China)
It turned out the experience was special. The taxi was rather small and it could only fit one of my many giant pieces of luggage, and the rest of us were crammed into the car while instinctively I was reaching for the safety belt (not that it had any belt), the taxi driver waved and said “—eh”, and there we went. Rolling down the car window we were heading to the city. Everything looks different, even the sound of the engine was different. It was like I took the time machine and I was not looking at a vintage car in a museum or gallery, I was, actually sitting in a vintage car and used it as transportation…
The driver and I started talking with limited English vocabulary. He started with some local travel information to global news. I found it impressive since the driver seemed to catch up with the global issues pretty well, from Sony Pictures / North Korea dispute to occupying Central in Hong Kong (at that time). Although they have their own “Truman Show” in the communism, they are very well aware what’s happening “Out There”~
… It continues (Back to 1953.. the Next Day)